Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Trump of Arabia

Donald Trump will make his first foreign visit this week, eschewing more typical early presidential destinations like Canada in favor of a photo-op heavy swing through Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican, before attending next week’s NATO summit in Brussels. Of these, perhaps the most interesting will be his time in Riyadh, where he will conduct bilateral meetings and attend two summit gatherings: one a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) meeting, and the other a U.S.-Arab Islamic summit.

Despite Trump’s negative comments about Saudi Arabia during the campaign, he has been more supportive since his inauguration, and likely looks forward to a warm reception in Riyadh. For their part, the Saudis have invested heavily in lobbying the new administration, with whom they believe they can work on issues from counterterrorism to Iran. For a president under fire at home, and whom even foreign allies treat with extreme caution, the open embrace of Saudi leaders is undoubtedly welcome.

During the visit, Trump is expected to make two announcements. The first is a massive arms sale worth as much as $300 billion over a decade. The package includes a number of advanced systems, most notably a THAAD missile defense system, and is intended to improve Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities. The second rumored announcement – the creation of an “Arab NATO” – is more unexpected. Though such an idea has been suggested before, regional realities have typically prevented it from advancing past the idea stage.

Indeed, though the U.S. has long sought to build up military cooperation and interoperability between regional states, policy differences and long-running disputes have torpedoed similar initiatives in the past. From military cooperation within the GCC to 2015’s Saudi-led announcement of an “Islamic coalition to fight terrorism“ these efforts have yielded few concrete results. Even at the height of the Cold War, the Baghdad Pact (CENTO) was rendered ineffectual by regional disputes.

In reality, the likelihood of failure may not worry either Trump or the Saudi leadership, both of whom have shown a propensity for policy characterized by big, flashy announcements that are rarely followed through with concrete steps.

Of greater concern are other areas of likely discussion at the summit, particularly the prospect of greater U.S.-Saudi cooperation against Iran. Though Trump has thus far proven unwilling to “rip up” the Iranian nuclear deal, he has initiated new sanctions on Iran, and repeatedly promised a more assertive U.S. policy to deal with Iran’s “destabilizing” regional behaviors.  Unfortunately, this approach carries risks, including the prospect of undermining the nuclear deal or of creating a wider regional conflict.

And while the President and Saudi leaders may agree on many policy issues, the summit does present several areas of potential conflict. For one thing, the hosts have extended an invitation to Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, currently under indictment by the ICC for war crimes and genocide, a choice which has upset many in Washington, if not necessarily the President himself. Trump is likely to accidentally provide support to one side in the ongoing influence struggle between Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi Crown Prince, and Mohammed bin Salman, the King’s son and second-in-line to the throne.

Trump’s scheduled speech on Islam also promises a variety of opportunities for misunderstanding and misstatements; in addition to the President’s habit of deviating from prepared remarks, the speech itself is reportedly being written by advisor Stephen Miller. Miller is not only the author of the Trump administration’s controversial travel ban on various Muslim countries, but also waged a campaign during his college years to create awareness of the dangers of “Islamofascism.”

In short, though Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia offers little in the way of policy disagreements – and presents a valuable opportunity for the new administration to distance itself from turmoil at home – it also offers plenty of potential pitfalls for the new President and his staff. And that’s before he even makes it to stop number two. 

The Stealth Fusion Center Data Sharing Bill

The attention of most in Congress, the media, and the privacy rights community has been focused this spring on the looming Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments (FAA) Act Section 702 reauthorization fight, generally for good reasons. However, other expansions of domestic surveillance powers and data sharing are getting far less attention—and one such measure before the House today may dramatically expand the kind of information state and local law enforcement agencies can get from the federal government.

Introduced on April 26 by Rep. John Katko (R-NY), the “Improving Fusion Centers’ Access to Information Act” (HR 2169) is designed to plug any “information gaps” in state “fusion centers” by modifying the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to require DHS to

identify Federal databases and datasets, including databases and datasets used, operated, or managed by Department components, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of the Treasury, that are appropriate, in accordance with Federal laws and policies, to address any gaps identified pursuant to paragraph (2), for inclusion in the information sharing environment and coordinate with the appropriate Federal agency to deploy or access such databases and datasets;

If the sound of this makes you feel uncomfortable, it should for several reasons—not the least of which is the last-minute decision by the Obama administration to make more raw (and thus potentially unverified or inaccurate) intelligence from the National Security Agency available to the FBI, and thus other law enforcement agencies the FBI decides need the data.

What makes Katko’s bill—which is coming to the House floor under expedited consideration via a legislative procedure known as “suspension of the rules“—even worse is that it ignores the 2012 findings of a Senate Homeland Security Committee report that found that state fusion centers were at best worthless, and at worse Bill of Rights violation factories.

In the press release on the committee report, then chairman Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) stated, “It’s troubling that the very ‘fusion’ centers that were designed to share information in a post-9/11 world have become part of the problem. Instead of strengthening our counterterrorism efforts, they have too often wasted money and stepped on Americans’ civil liberties.”

Leaking From the Top

On Monday, the Washington Post dropped a bombshell, reporting that Donald Trump had shared highly classified “codeword” intelligence—provided by an ally on the condition that it not be more widely disseminated—with Russian officials during their meeting last week.  While administration officials initially issued fierce denials, national security advisor H.R. McMaster, who had himself blasted the story as “false” in a carefully-worded statement, effectively confirmed the key elements of the report at a press briefing Tuesday morning. While McMaster repeatedly insisted that Trump’s decision to share information had been “wholly appropriate,” his remarks (perhaps inadvertently) raised several additional grounds for concern.

First, let’s dispense with the obvious: Classification authority in the United States flows from the president, and so a president is legally entitled to declassify or disclose information as he sees fit, for any reason or no reason at all.  This is a case where that infamous Nixonism—”When the president does it, that means it is not illegal”—actually applies.  Nobody, as far as I can tell, is seriously disputing that.  It’s also true that presidents often choose, for strategic or diplomatic reasons, to share particular pieces of intelligence with foreign governments.  Yet this does not appear to have been a “routine” instance of such sharing, as McMaster sought to characterize it—not by a longshot.

Rather, as NYU law professor Ryan Goodman observes at the Just Security blog, any decision to share such sensitive information would normally be subject to a rigorous interagency process, allowing the originators of the intelligence to assess the equities implicated by disclosure and apprise the White House of the potential consequences.  In this case, McMaster confirmed, the decision appears to have been made on the fly during the course of the discussion—and so necessarily uninformed by any serious analysis of the costs and benefits.  Indeed, McMaster even attempted to allay any concerns that Trump might have compromised “sources and methods” by noting that Trump had not been briefed on the source of the intelligence.  Yet as intelligence officials so frequently remind us in other contexts, sources or methods can sometimes be reverse-engineered from the substance of intelligence. If Trump was not aware of the source, his decision to disclose cannot have factored in either that direct risk of exposure, or the related risk of damaging relations with an ally by sharing sensitive information without seeking permission. Even if he had not been briefed on the details, of course, information shared under such conditions should have been clearly marked  “NOFORN” to indicate that it should not be disseminated to foreign nationals, including allies.  

Trump Use of Intelligence Questioned

Intentionally or otherwise, President Trump continues to make headlines, this time involving allegedly highly sensitive information on ISIS that he shared with senior Russian officials during an Oval Office visit. If, as the Washington Post has alleged, that the information was provided by a U.S. ally in the region and that Trump did not seek the ally’s clearance in advance to share the intelligence with the Russians, it represents potential collateral political damage with said ally. Today, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster held a press conference clearly designed as a damage control operation, although by admitting that “the president wasn’t even aware of where this information came from” he only reinforced the image of Trump as impulsive and careless.

One thing that is not in question is Trump’s authority to share the data with the Russians. The real question is whether he should’ve done so. 

Recall that it was the Soviet KGB’s successor organization, the FSB, that gave the CIA and the FBI the tip that the Tsarnaev brothers were terrorist-in-the-making two years before the Boston Marathon Bombing. That episode was the exception to the rule and record of America’s dealings with Russian intelligence services, as one CIA veteran of Russian operations noted earlier this year. Trump has made no secret of the fact that he wants to increase counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and Russia, particularly against ISIS. Whether his off-the-cuff intelligence sharing foray with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Kislyak was the right way to do it is highly debatable. That it has at least temporarily focused attention away from a genuine ongoing scandal–the “Russiagate” investigation and the timing of the firing of ousted FBI Director James Comey–is beyond dispute. Trump’s Oval Office antics have given the Russians unearned wins on both issues this week.

The Future of American Internationalism

Hal Brands has published a long and thoughtful essay at War on the Rocks on the future of American Internationalism. Despite its length, or perhaps because of it, the piece is worthy of a careful read.

Echoing themes that I have discussed previously (e.g. here and here), Brands foresees two equally plausible scenarios: a return to the liberal international order (LIO) crafted and sustained by a bipartisan foreign policy elite since the end of World War II; or an enduring shift away from internationalism, a process decades-in-the-making, but hastened by Trump’s presidency.

Brands is cautiously optimistic that the former will eventually prevail, provided that U.S. leaders undertake a series of reforms reflecting new geopolitical and domestic political realities. Fearful that Trump’s isolationism and hyper-nationalism will prevail, I have argued for a third way. U.S. leaders should reiterate their commitment to economic openness and international engagement, but call on other wealthy nations to share in the burdens of maintaining it. And they should back up such rhetoric with actions, by renegotiating decades-long alliance relationships, and avoiding intervening militarily in disputes that do not engage vital U.S. security interests. 

Brands does shade the truth from time to time. For example, he claims that U.S. leaders “sought to sustain a global balance of power that favored America and its democratic allies, and to advance liberal concepts such as democracy and human rights.” A not-complete list of the U.S. government’s perilous partners over the past 70 years reminds us that Washington’s commitment to promoting democracy and human rights has been inconsistent, at best.

  • Chiang Kai-shek (Taiwan)
  • Syngman Rhee/Park Chung Hee/Chun Doo-Hwan (South Korea)
  • Ayub Khan/Zia-ul-Haq/Pervez Musharraf (Pakistan)
  • The House of Saud
  • The Shah of Iran
  • Hosni Mubarak/Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Egypt)
  • Plus a handful (or more) of generals and strongmen in Latin America

Can the Iran Deal Survive?

The Iran deal is working as advertised by containing Iran’s nuclear weapons program. That non-proliferation success creates a greater one: it vastly lowers the odds of a U.S. attack on Iran and pacifies relations. That’s what makes the deal anathema to those on both sides who would preserve enmity to gain in domestic political fights.

The deal’s fate may be sealed in the coming weeks. A presidential election Friday in Iran will either re-elect Hassan Rouhani, who pushed for the deal and now defends it, or replace him with a hardliner. The Trump administration recently launched a review of Iran policy and the deal, which could yield a decision to try to undermine the agreement or to truly stay in it.

Under the 2015 deal, officially the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in various ways and allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspections in exchange for relief from some of the sanctions that the United States, the European Union, and the UN Security Council had imposed and the release of frozen funds. The deal leaves in place sanctions on Iran for human rights violations, ballistic missile development, and support for terrorist organizations. The Obama administration also dropped charges against a number of Iranian sanctions violators in exchange for Iran’s release of four American prisoners.

Last fall’s elections put the deal in peril. They matched a Republican Senate majority that had openly tried to undermine the deal’s negotiation with a militaristic president who opposed it as a candidate. Trump made typically contradictory statements about the deal in campaigning but mostly voiced hostility typical of GOP hawks. For example, he told the AIPAC convention, “My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” Trump’s top foreign policy appointees seemed to share a particular hostility to Iran. Even Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who many saw as a lone voice of foreign policy caution, had notably belligerent views on Iran, even bizarrely suggesting that it had created ISIS, despite Iran’s aide for ISIS’s opponents in Iraq and Syria.

Despite this rhetoric, neither Congress nor the administration has raced to dismantle the deal. Congressional leaders have suggested they expect to abide by it. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did join the panel’s ranking member Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to introduce a bill that would heighten sanctions on Iran for missile development, support for terrorist organizations, and human rights abuses. Though adopting the bill would antagonize Iran and make it more difficult for the United States to hold up its end of the bargain, it would not directly violate its terms.

The Trump administration, thus far, has stuck with the deal, while huffing and puffing. Officials say they’ll honor its terms pending a review run by National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster, who, notably, isn’t a strident proponent of confrontation with Iran, like his predecessor, General Michael Flynn. The State Department recently certified Iran’s compliance but, in the same press release, proclaimed Iran’s continued support for terrorism. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson knocked the deal for failing “to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran,” seemingly referring to its retention of enrichment facilities. President Trump then claimed that Iran is “not living up to the spirit of the agreement” and called it “terrible.”

These statements are a boon to Iran’s hardliners, who call the deal a capitulation to the United States, which they see as irredeemably hostile. Evidence of that hostility also comes in U.S. policy: the Corker-Menendez bill, Iran’s inclusion in the Trump administration’s legally-fraught travel ban, potentially-heightened U.S. military aid for their rival Saudi Arabia in its brutal bombing campaign in Yemen, and a likely massive arms sale to the Saudis.

Endless War in Afghanistan and Colombia

Two front-page stories in the Washington Post today tell a depressing story:

President Trump’s most senior military and foreign policy advisers have proposed a major shift in strategy in Afghanistan that would effectively put the United States back on a war footing with the Taliban…more than 15 years after U.S. forces first arrived there.

Seventeen years and $10 billion after the U.S. government launched the counternarcotics and security package known as Plan Colombia, America’s closest drug-war ally is covered with more than 460,000 acres of coca. Colombian farmers have never grown so much, not even when Pablo Escobar ruled the drug trade. 

There are high school students about to register for the draft who have never known a United States not at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. And of course the policy of drug prohibition has now lasted more than a century, though the specific Colombian effort began only under President Clinton around 1998, getting underway in 2000.

I wrote an op-ed, “Let’s Quit the Drug War,” in the New York Times in 1988. Cato scholars and authors have been writing about the seemingly endless war(s) in the Middle East for years now. Maybe it’s time for policymakers to start considering whether endless war is a sign of policy failure.

And maybe one day, a generation from now, our textbooks will not tell our children, We have always been at war with Eastasia.